Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Once again Clippers/Grizzlies play it close. Once again Clips have too much Chris Paul.

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Again it was physical and nasty game. Again it was close at the end. Again the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies fought like two evenly matched teams that just don’t like each other. This time it went all the way to overtime.

And Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said it was the same thing that was the difference in the end.

“Chris Paul.”

He is right. Paul had eight of the Clippers’ 14 points in overtime — he would come off the high pick, go right at the Memphis big man, get him backpedaling, then pull up for an elbow jumper. He was the reason the Clippers won 101-97 and have a commanding 3-1 series lead heading to Memphis for Game 5.

“(Paul) made three straight jumpers, got to the basket, got fouled, I mean come on,” Hollins said. “Chris Paul won that game for them down the stretch.”

As he has all series. He has dominated late. CP3 has been the best player on the floor. But there were other keys for the Clippers as this team continues to learn how to win in the playoffs.

Los Angeles played its best defense of the series, holding Memphis to 43.4 percent shooting — and if you take away the Grizzlies’ 20 second-chance points (19 offensive rebounds), they shot just 41.8 percent. Or, look at it this way: Remove Mike Conley — who was fantastic with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting — and the rest of the Grizzlies shot just 38.8 percent. Or count their starting front of Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, who combined to 35 percent.

The Clippers defense cut off Grizzlies’ preferred angles, taking away clean passes to the post, and that threw the Memphis system off balance. When Gasol does not get the ball in his preferred spots, the Grizzlies’ offense can stall out and become isolation-heavy — he is key to their ball movement. But Gasol had just 4 shot attempts and 8 points all game. Gay tried to attack and find his spots and had 23 points but needed 25 shots to get there.

Meanwhile, a Blake Griffin that was more aggressive getting to his spots on the offensive end had 30 points on just 15 shots, plus 7 assists. It was his best game of the playoffs, while CP3 added 27.

Then there were good contributions from the Clippers bench again. Reggie Evans had a key offensive rebound off a missed Griffin shot in overtime to set up a CP3 bucket. Mo Williams had 9 points. Nick Young hit a key three — one Griffin assisted while sitting after slipping on a drive.

Despite all that, the Clippers could not pull away. In part because they shot only 33 percent for the second quarter and the front line of Memphis does not make anything easy, they are physical right back with the Clippers and were not getting their points. Conley was on fire and Memphis was scrappy. They fought back from 10 down and made it a game.

But in the end the Clippers had Chris Paul.

To a man after the game the Grizzlies said this series was not over — if they had not blown a 27 point lead in Game 1 the series would be tied. If they could find a way to stop Chris Paul.

“We are confident,” Rudy Gay said. “We’re a tough and resilient team. I think we can bounce back.”

“We’re going to try and shut down Chris Paul a little bit,” Hollins said. “He’s the problem and we’ve got to solve the problem.”

Chris Paul has won just one playoff closeout game in his NBA career — he has only once advanced to the second round. It’s going to be hard to get that win Wednesday night in Memphis. These Clippers are not young but they are young as a core being together and they are figuring things out still. These Clippers are still learning to win as a team.

But they are making a pretty quick study of it.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.